by Pratim Sengupta


Computing in Public, Computing for Public

“Code” that helps us learn should be a public object and experience, not a private language.

Welcome to DigiPlay @ WSE, a digital play space for interactive exhibits designed using open-source software and hardware. This space is truly open to anyone — not only students and faculty at University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, where it is housed. It demonstrates a commitment of one of the world’s foremost public universities to make open computing an integral part of public education at all levels.

The space consists of three 80" touch screens, powered by fairly inexpensive desktops. The screens currently display open-source simulations of phenomena that are mathematically considered to complex systems. A key characteristic of these systems is emergence- i.e., larger scale patterns, such as flocks of birds and schools of fish, emerge from rather simple and relatively unplanned interactions between lots of individual entities.

What makes this an open source digital play space?

The code that powers the powerful simulations (and in the near future, physical computing machines) at DigiPlay is open source and always accessible to any visitor — literally — with the touch of a finger. This is not “watered down” code — visitors directly interact with the same code that professionals use for designing these simulations.

With just a little bit of help (EVERY Friday, 3- 4 pm, we host public hack hours), irrespective of your programming background, you can change, modify and build your own simulations. Or even better, invent something completely new in this space, in public, with the public, for the public.

Dr. David Rock (left), Dean, Univ. of Mississippi’s College of Education hacking DigiPlay code. I only helped him a little bit.

Actually, visitor inventions are fairly common when visitors spend a few minutes with the code. By making simple — but powerful — changes to the code, several visitors have already generated behaviors in the simulation that were surprising, even for the original creators of the code.

You can see an example in the short video below.

Who visits DigiPlay @ WSE?

Our first and youngest visitor was 1.5 years old, perched solid on his dad’s shoulders. They just happened to pass by at the moment we officially opened DigiPlay. They spoke in Spanish — the dad mainly — explaining how flocks were forming in the simulations to his little son, while both of them created new flocks.

The first visitors @ DigiPlay

Last month, during Canada’s largest conference for social sciences and humanities, deans and professors from all over Canada also created their flocks.

Every day, I also see some of the construction engineers who are building parts of the very same Education Tower where DigiPlay is hosted, taking their breaks and hacking the simulations.

Yesterday, a group of Werklund graduate students and their professor — many of whom had never programmed before — decided to “hold” their regular class at DigiPlay. And as is possible in spaces like this, with very little help from me or their professor, they dove deep into the simulations, hacked the code, and challenged each other (a “Flock Off”, one student said).

Amid laughter and banter, the students engaged in some of the most intricate discourse about the mathematics of complex systems that I have heard in a while. But the conversation I heard was also about their lives, and their experiences as teachers and professionals: the flocking “boids” not only represented swarms of birds and fish, but also stood in as models of “peer pressure” and “influence networks”.

This is the kind of learning that is only possible at spaces like this — learning with friends, and learning about the unknown, unscripted — through deliberations, collaboration and eventually, inventions.

Werklund graduate students leading self-directed class at DigiPlay

So, why DigiPlay?

Here’s why.

We can (and often do) sign away, wittingly or unwittingly, many of our “rights” as individuals every time we use “closed source” or “proprietary” software. This ranges from the social media platforms, to the cell phones and the text editing software we use.

The issue at stake here is our freedom as democratic citizens, as well as our rights as private individuals. In absence of these freedoms and rights, the “public” will be reduced to a ghost image of institutions and states.

In Democracy & Education, John Dewey poignantly noted that one cannot engage in public life all by oneself. If public participation and public voice are controlled through proprietary code, we, the public, must be careful, and more importantly, actively resist these forces through public education that provides us ample and appropriate access to open computing.

However, even a “free” and “open” public learning environment also has to be “designed”. Digiplay @ WSE is an example of such a public space that we have designed for the public. This communique is an invitation to everyone to join us and shape the space and the conversation at DigiPlay.

And no, this is not about giving all our visitors the impression that coding is easy. This is about giving them the bigger picture: “Code” that helps us learn should be a public object and experience, not a private language. And “coding” in Digiplay @ WSE is a public experience, designed for and open to everyone, not a private experience for the chosen few.